London: Macmillan, 1888. First Edition. Hardcover. 2 vols. 1st edition (vol. II contains 2 short stories, Louisa Palant and The Modern Warning). Original dark green cloth (almost British racing green). A fine set, razor sharp, extraordinary in the context of a 650 copy 1st printing, and I seldom see common Victorian double deckers that look like this anymore. Fine. Item #924
James was always confident with small lives and big themes, so in The Aspern Papers he tries his commanding hand at Everything you Always Wanted to Know About Bibliomania but Were Afraid to Ask. An American editor, obsessed with the work of an early 19th century Romantic poet, Jeffery Aspern, travels to Venice seeking the love letters that Aspern wrote to his mistress, Miss. Bordereau. He devises a false identity to veil his aims and finds her living in poverty with her niece (Tina), alienated from the world. He becomes their lodger and since Bordereau wishes to protect her niece's future, he eventually takes Tina into his confidence. As Bordereau begins to fade from illness he leaps at the chance and rifles through her desk only to be surprised by the lady herself. At the moment of crux, she suffers a relapse. What follows is a sad case of lover’s blackmail, the eagle brought down by an arrow guided with its own feather. The old lady dies, and though Tina’s love for him becomes clear, his quest is doomed because she will only give the letters to a relative.
This is the last novel from James first period of exalted work. During the 1880s he fell into a pattern. He'd create a strong female character, then nullify the false security she clings to. With The Tragic Muse (1890), he tried running a bigger engine powered by a new intricate prose. The aim was to make every sentence a work of art, but the big motor got vapor lock and he quit being a novelist, a career decision that in our day would have landed him on a reality show called Where Are They Now? For 6 years he sharpened his skills writing plays and pondered his new device. Then, in 1897, he tried an experimental novel (What Maisie Knew), followed quickly by 4 others (Poynton, Turn of the Screw, Awkward Age and Sacred Fount). The testing ended with the 20th century, and James reached the pinnacle of his new discipline when he published Wings of the Dove (1902), Ambassadors (1903) and Golden Bowl (1904). All 3 were painful to write and are difficult to access (the last more so). Every thought and image is qualified, but it is The Aspern Papers that hearkens back to the best of the original Henry James, readable, enlightening, intuitive, wise, capturing, and thought provoking.